David Phillips Pleads The Case For Emmy Rossum
Based on a long-running British comedy of the same name, Shameless did not make a huge splash on this side of the Atlantic when it debuted here in 2011. Despite being transplanted to Chicago from Manchester and including the well-known presences of Oscar nominees William H. Macy and Joan Cusack, the show’s initial ratings were modest, if good enough to secure a second run.
The story of the lower-class Gallaghers making their way by hook – and more often – crook was told with ribald humor. The plots were both realistic and sensational. As someone who lives just two hours from the Windy City, I can tell you it felt authentic.
Only on rare occasions did the show step a little too far into the fantastical – a jet engine landing in the agoraphobic Cusack’s yard as she was trying to muster the courage to leave her home is perhaps the most egregious example.
The early years often centered around the outrageous exploits of the Gallagher patriarch, Frank, played by Macy. Which at times was a bit much for me, if I’m being honest. How many times can one see Frank passed out on the street soiled with his own leftover and still be amused?
As I stuck with the show, I discovered something though. Shameless wasn’t really about Frank. As outsized as his character was and still is, the center of the show – the character that balanced all the madness rolling around the outskirts – was that of Emmy Rossum’s Fiona.
Rossum first made a splash in 2003 as Sean Penn’s ill-fated daughter in Mystic River, and then again just one year later as Christine in Joel Schumacher’s film version of The Phantom of the Opera. The latter was a modest success, but did not provide Rossum with the springboard to stardom many might have expected.
The next seven years of her career were short on great roles to be kind. The low point probably being 2009’s Dragonball: Evolution. A film based on…oh, you don’t really want to know. Although as a bit of trivia, it did introduce her to future Shameless paramour Justin Chatwin (AKA: Jimmy/Steve).
It must have taken a bit of imagination to cast Rossum as the industrious, foul-mouthed Fiona. There was nothing on her resume to suggest a fit so perfect. I would love to see her audition tape. It must have been off all charts.
As a smarter-than-she-might-appear surrogate mother to a full brood of siblings that her drunken father and bi-polar mother left her to care for, Rossum more than grounded the show in a gritty, near-desperate realism. She created an indelible character that one could hardly imagine being played by someone else.
Yet still, over nine seasons and steadily increasing ratings, Rossum has largely gone unnoticed during awards season. Not a single nomination from either the Golden Globes or the Emmys has come her way. Whereas her counterpart Macy has earned two nods from the former and five from the latter.
I find this to be a real shame, no pun intended. Not to dismiss Macy’s colorful work, but you can almost always feel him acting. With Rossum, you can only feel her being. In her role of the put-upon matriarch who has to hold her family together while barely able to manage her own wants and desires, she is the beating heart of this show.
She is the dynamic character. She is the one who has fallen and grown. Who has changed. She has done so while anchoring the show with humor, beauty, and a working class authenticity that belies her high-toned history as a classically trained singer accepted by the Metropolitan Opera at the age of seven, and who went on to sing alongside Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.
The Emmys have but one last shot to recognize Emmy. Just prior to the ninth season of Shameless, Rossum declared this turn to be her last on the show. Her final season (for Rossum – the show will go on without her) has been uneven. As if the show runners aren’t sure how to transition into a post-Fiona future. Believe me, I sympathize.
But if this season of Shameless has not been its strongest, it is no reflection upon Rossum. She remained heartfelt, hilarious, and bruised as Fiona’s efforts at entrepreneurship have once again left her broke and alone.
Now that her (well-done) exit has played out, her absence leaves an unfillable hole. The core of Shameless will have been torn out. Maybe Debbie and Lip can cover some of her ground. They are fine characters too, played by fine actors. It’s just that over these nine seasons, Fiona has become the show. She is its unlevel ground. It’s battered floor. It’s shabby center.
How do you replace that?
I do know this. While Rossum’s exit will surely be painful for viewers, it need not be without fanfare. The Emmys could finally get it right for Emmy. If not a win, at least a nomination. It’s their last shot, and it’s long overdue.